Leadership, Promising Practices

The Children in the Numbers

Why aggregate achievement goals miss the mark

“The face that launched a thousand ships.”

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

“The personal is political.”

Through the ages, astute observers have understood the extra motivation created by personalization. Establishing a human connection evokes emotion and is a powerful catalyst for motivation that inspires and moves us to action. The same is true in schools.

Student achievement goals are often rooted in numbers; but numbers seldom motivate humans working with humans. They hardly ever motivate teachers. In fact, numbers can hide our true goal as teachers: children’s learning. For example, consider the following “typical” learning goals established in schools in relation to improving student achievement:

“Our school is focusing on increasing the percentage of Grade 2 students achieving ‘acceptable’ on the district’s reading assessment from 72 percent to 80 percent over the next three years.”

“This year, our goal is to improve student absence rates from an average of 2.1 days absent to 1.5 days absent.”

“Over the next two years, we plan to decrease the number of suspensions related to male misbehaviour from 112 to 50.”

On the surface, there is little wrong with any of these three goal statements. Each statement meets the SMART criteria connected to effective goal development. Each is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound.[1]  Each can be further developed with related strategies to promote attainment. The problem is that common school goals like these focus on overall averages, percentages, or totals. And that is where they can lack power. By emphasizing overall averages, percentages, or totals, two basic problems emerge: 1) numbers, rather than children, become the focus; and 2) subgroups or individual students can be hidden within the overall averages.

Focus on students

Sharratt and Fullan remind us, “We are wired to feel things for people, not for numbers.”[2]  A goal like improving overall student absence rates from an average of 2.1 to 1.5 absent days may not inspire much passion or commitment. It is hard for teachers to get excited about making a difference for children when the focus is on nebulous “school averages.”

What if the issue were framed in the following way: 

Last year, our overall student absence rate was 2.1 days per student from Grades 3 to 6. When examining our current student population of 300 students, actually 200 students missed less than a day all year! Another 50 students missed 2 or fewer days. However, 30 students missed 5-10 days and 20 students missed more than 10 days. We have compiled a list for each grade level of the students with 5-10 days absent, which are coloured yellow, and the students with more than 10 days, which are coloured red. Let’s start to talk about what actions we can be putting in place to specifically address these yellow- and red-coded students. Which yellow students can we reduce down to 2 or less days absent? With appropriate interventions, which red students could become yellow?

Such personalized focus shifts teachers’ conversations from general school-wide strategies to goals for specific students. Interventions can be established that focus on specific students and subgroups of heightened concern, and ongoing monitoring can be established to focus on individual student progress.

Consider this literacy example: 

In previous years, the Grade 3 team used multiple measures to determine students who were reading at grade level upon entering and exiting Grade 3. Last year, we succeeded in raising students’ overall entry to exit progress from 75 percent to 82 percent, although students fell short of our goal of 85 percent overall. This year, the grade-level team will focus on individuals rather than the overall average. The team has found that 22 students entering Grade 3 are not yet reading at grade level. They posted these students’ pictures whenever they met as a Grade 3 team; and, by mid-year, they already knew that Susan, Michael, Philip, Esther, Frank, Desmond, and Cecilia were well on their way to reading at grade level. That only leaves another 15 students to place special attention and focus on for the remainder of the year.

It is easy to see that the approaches taken in the two examples personalize and make learning goals about children, not numbers. We are not suggesting that schools eliminate the formation of goals, and we subscribe to the power of SMART goals as foundations for sound school improvement. However, attempting to raise an overall school average by 5 percentage points likely will fail to elicit the commitment needed to succeed. By contrast, when specific students are identified and collectively targeted, the overall averages, percentages, and totals will take care of themselves. Teachers will expend tireless efforts when they see a difference being made for one child.

First steps

When starting to focus on children rather than faceless averages, consider using pictures. It is powerful when teachers see the faces of those children most in need of everyone’s support. We are not suggesting public displays that inherently ostracize children and families! But in closed staff or team meetings, sharing children’s photographs on PowerPoints or posters personalizes the goal.

We have experienced a celebratory final staff meeting where, rather than showing a bar graph of yearly school progress from 75 percent to 78 percent reading proficiency overall, photographs of students who moved from at-risk to at grade level were shared. The emotion and celebration among teachers was inspiring, and they shared success stories with each other and found it fulfilling to see for whom exactly they had made a difference. The buzz in the room also definitely motivated teachers to continue to build upon these successes. There were still students who needed help!

The importance of disaggregation

Moving from overall to individual analysis more than just inspires and creates purpose. It pulls back the veil to display children (and sub-groups of students) who can be lost when focusing upon overall averages. Consider Alan Blankstein’s observation:

Data represent all groups within a school. Overall averages can hide persistent problems that do not reveal themselves until the data are disaggregated in order to describe each group that makes up part of the student population. A school can take pride in the fact that its mean Grade 8 reading score is at the 72nd percentile, but that figure may hide evidence that although 10% of the class reads at the 99th percentile, a troubling 15% are reading below the 40th percentile. Unless this school examines disaggregated data, the needs of 15% of its students may be overlooked.”[3]

We further suggest that the “lost” 15 percent in Blankstein’s example should be individually identified, regularly monitored, and supported through specific interventions or focused strategies. In addition, sometimes successful overall scores and averages can foster or promote a degree of comfort (at best) or educational apathy (at worst) within a school. Our experience suggests that it can be difficult to create a sense of urgency for that small sub-group of students that remains at-risk when heralding the success of a superior overall average.

A school where 91 percent of students are proficient in reading has achieved an outstanding accomplishment. We should take time to celebrate this school success. Then, let’s go back to work! There remains nine percent of the population (almost one child in ten) still not achieving at grade level. Those children may be frustrated, upset, confused, hurting, and blocked from growing towards personal goals. We are still falling short of our mission to ensure success for all our students – each child.

Numbers distance; faces motivate. By remembering that a single child’s learning success is our ultimate teaching goal, schools can ensure the development of strong emotional connections between educators and their students that carry a sense of urgency. The faces of children should be the goals of our teaching – it is these young faces who will launch our ships.

First published in Education Canada, June 2013


EN BREF – Les cibles de réussite des élèves sont souvent numériques, mais les chiffres motivent rarement les individus qui travaillent avec d’autres personnes. Les chiffres créent de la distance, les visages motivent. Au lieu de s’appuyer outre mesure sur des cibles globales de réussite, les écoles et leurs éducateurs doivent trouver les enfants derrière les chiffres. Établir un lien humain engendre l’émotion, puissant catalyseur d’une motivation qui inspire l’action et qui rehausse les efforts d’amélioration dans les écoles.

[1] P. J. Meyer, “What Would You Do if You Knew You Couldn’t Fail? Creating S.M.A.R.T. goals,” in Attitude Is Everything: If you want to succeed above and beyond (Meyer Resource Group, 2003).
[2] L. Sharratt and M. Fullan, Putting FACES on the Data: What great leaders do! (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2012), p. 2.
[3] A. Blankstein, Failure Is not an Option: Six principles that guide student achievement in high-performing schools (Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2004), p. 150.

Meet the Expert(s)

Jim Parsons

Jim Parsons is a professor with the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta with four decades of experience teaching, writing and researching at the post-secondary level.

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Kurtis Hewson

Kurtis Hewson is currently a Faculty of Education Associate at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta and an award-winning teacher and school administrator.

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